As Gyms in America Reopen, a South Korean Dance Studio Is a Cautionary Tale

Intense exercise in confined spaces is a dream scenario for the coronavirus

Workout class
When your local gym reopens, should you go back?
Luis Vidal/Unsplash
By Tanner Garrity / May 21, 2020 6:30 am

As gyms reopen across America, they’d be wise to keep in mind a study recently published by a research team at South Korea’s Dankook University Hospital. According to the paper, in early February, eight asymptomatic fitness instructors at a dance studio in the city of Cheonan were responsible for spreading the coronavirus to at least 112 people connected to the classes.

The participants were infected over a span of 24 days, after attending a day of classes with five to 22 students each. Most of the cases were linked directly from an instructor to a student, and in certain cases, a sick student then passed the infection on to a family member or friend. Fascinatingly, an instructor carrying the virus did not infect anyone in a seven-person yoga class they also taught. The researchers concluded that lower-intensity workouts are not as conducive to spreading the virus, as tight-quartered, high-voltage workouts.

The authors behind the study wrote, “Intense physical exercise in densely populated sports facilities could increase risk for infection. Vigorous exercise in confined spaces should be minimized during outbreaks.”

South Korea’s dance studio infections were spread months ago, in a different world, before social distancing was the norm, any curve had been flattened, and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in cities across the globe had acquired antibodies for COVID-19. But the virus, of course, is still alive and well, and if fitness centers in America open too quickly, or without consideration for these findings, there could very well be another workshop “event” that carries infections far and wide.

At the moment, bigger studios included in early phase plans for reopening states are focusing on the gym floor: staffers take temperatures at the door, six-foot social distancing is expected, face masks are encouraged if not outright enforced, and wipes are provided to keep machines disinfected. But classes should be given serious attention, too, and broken down by type. Enormously popular HIIT workouts, hot yoga, and aerobic bootcamps pack a lot of sweaty people in a very small space. Ideally, gyms would operate bespoke phased-in systems for classes, within the larger phasing-in framework for businesses.

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